VitalStim Therapy Eases Swallowing Difficulty

"Next generation" therapy improves post-cancer recovery

For recently retired Waukegan dentist, Dr. Edward Sarsha, successful throat cancer surgery in June 2007 was followed by a protocol of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Scar tissue from the radiation treatments, combined with chemo-related excessive phlegm and mucus, made swallowing almost intolerable, not an uncommon occurrence for head and neck cancer patients.

Referred to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital’s Speech, Audiology and Neurodiagnostics team for dysphagia (difficulty in swallowing) therapy, Dr. Sarsha began 3-4 times-a-week treatment sessions this past April. Lake Forest was among the early adapters of VitalStim therapy in 2005, using neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) to treat dysphagia patients.

Approximately two months into Dr. Sarsha’s dysphagia treatment regimen, Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital became the first hospital in Illinois to acquire and become staff certified in the use of Experia™, a new technology that delivers a wider range of modalities to enhance neuromuscular stimulation.

“The biggest difference for me is that the electronic impulses are more consistent and profound with the new equipment, giving me more sustained swallowing control,” said Sarsha. “I’m also gradually gaining more flexibility and movement in my jaw, which is helping my swallowing ability.”

As of June 2008, there were 12 Experia™ machines in use in the U.S., with two of them in operation at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. In addition to neuromuscular stimulation being applied electronically to two locations on the throat instead of one, advantages include:

  • Several different pulse waveforms
  • Triggered stimulation based on muscle activation reaching a preset target
  • Combined visual and auditory real-time biofeedback during swallowing, which empowers the patient to become more actively involved in his or her therapy

“For many patients, the original VitalStim therapy we’ve been using since 2005 is sufficient,” said Christine Corl, MS, CCC-SLP, Speech Language Pathologist at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. “But the Experia™ is more effective at enabling us to help patients with deeper scar tissue issues, such as Dr. Sarsha.”

“After 30-some treatments and daily, home-based exercises,” added Sarsha, “I’ve gone from a guy in almost constant swallowing-related distress living on a soft diet of eggs, oatmeal, pasta and the like, to one who can actually eat real food, even meat. When I can go to a buffet and eat almost anything, then I’ll know I’m back!”

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